November 27, 2004
Elmer Andersen, the Minnesota Mensch
By Doug McGill
The McGill Report
ROCHESTER, MN -- The indispensable
Elmer L. Anderson played many roles during his long lifetime – traveling
furniture salesman, liberal Republican, glue-company tycoon, dairy
farmer, Minnesota State Senator,
Minnesota Governor, serious
book collector, and newspaper executive, to name just a few.
if he were to choose just one name for himself – the role
that he was proudest of and tried hardest to be – I bet he’d
go with global citizen.
He often said that of all
the many honors he received, he was proudest of a plaque that named
him as a “mensch,” the Hebrew word
for useful citizen.
“That’s what I’ve always wanted to be, an honorable,
useful citizen,” he wrote in his autobiography, A Man’s Reach.
There are a hundred ways you
could point to Anderson’s undying
passion not only for the people of Minnesota, but the people of the
As the son of immigrants from Norway and Sweden, he naturally saw no
essential distinction between Americans and people of other nationalities,
while at the same time seeing America as a blessed land of opportunity.
He said he loved the iron
workers of northern Minnesota because he shared the immigrant heritage
with them. “I understood why they were the
way they were. I knew what it was like to work in a factory. I shared
their values – family, hard work, education, each succeeding generation
When he scrambled up from traveling salesman to own his own company,
H.B. Fuller, which he built into a multinational firm, he often stressed
the potential for business to push government towards global cooperation.
“Industry has a wonderful opportunity to show leadership and use
its muscle to bring the United States into close alliance with the world
community,” he wrote. He argued tirelessly for closer American
involvement in the United Nations, even at the cost of some sovereign
“I liken the necessity of risking some of our sovereignty through
U.N. participation to the risk the thirteen original American states
faced as they formed a new nation,” he wrote in I Trust to be Believed,
a book published earlier this year.
"Joy Was Joy"
When the constitution replaced
state independence with federalism, “that
was a big change for the people at the time, just as it’s a big
change now to think in world terms. But it’s absolutely vital,
and the sooner we get to it, the better.”
Anderson’s global citizenship was part of his philosophy of life.
He found interest and beauty everywhere. “Aging is a wonderful
thing,” he wrote. “It is an extension of life.” For
him, beauty was beauty, joy was joy, a good idea was a good idea, no
matter how humble or ordinary or for that matter how exotic or foreign
its country of origin. He was open to life in all directions.
“The Quakers have a wonderful trait,” this Lutheran wrote. “They
never vote on anything. When people feel that their point of view is
outside the consensus and a consensus is forming, they ‘stand aside.’ That
is such a lovely expression: to stand aside. Let life go on. Let a person
live his or her personal belief, without making an issue of it.”
At a farm in Sweden, “I
remember their strawberry patch. They cared for those strawberries
as if every one was precious. Those Swedish
farmers lived modestly, yet richly. Compared to them, we ricochet through
life. The speed of American life and the gulping of experiences can be
an unfortunate thing. Too much of life is gone before it is really lived.”
A New Century
Is it possible that so gentle a soul, one so subtly and joyously attuned
to life, could ever have been our Governor, could have mastered the rough
and tumble of politics, could have risen to the top of the corporate
He did. And perhaps his lesson
to us therefore is that idealism is not so fragile, nor hope so naïve,
as we may all think in these cynical times. Maybe one lesson we can
take from Elmer Anderson is that optimism
is not unrealistic, but in fact is inevitable given a true openness
“Many years of living have given me a sense of confidence about
the future,” he wrote. “No matter how bad things seem to
be on some front, they will change, usually for the better.
“A wonderful new century is dawned, and I am glad to be among
those who greet it,” he wrote in 2000. “There is so much
to live for.”
All the energy this state will ever need is encapsulated in those words.
And all the love, too. Thank you, Elmer L. Anderson, our Governor, our
Copyright @ 2004 The McGill